Bill Ayrey: 41 years testing spacesuits
Lewes resident Bill Ayrey may have been only 15 years old when Neil Armstrong took that one giant leap for mankind July 20, 1969, but his work over the last 40 years has forever connected him to Apollo and the American space program.
Ayrey serves as historian for ILC Dover, a small Delaware company that developed and made the spacesuits worn by the Apollo astronauts. The company has since developed spacesuits for Space Shuttle and International Space Station astronauts. Ayrey’s work as a tester for Space Shuttle and ISS suits put him at the forefront of the space industry, and it also opened doors to working with the Smithsonian Institution.
In 2009, he worked with Smithsonian staff to restore Neil Armstrong’s Apollo 11 suit. The suit is usually kept in storage, but for the first time in 13 years, it will be put on display July 17 at the National Air & Space Museum in Washington, D.C.
“They’ve been restoring it, doing the best they can,” Ayrey said. “This has been a 8-, 9-, 10-year project.”
Ayrey helped staff better understand the materials the suit is made of and how it’s put together. It’s a relationship that began nearly 20 years ago.
In the late 1990s, he was contacted by Smithsonian spacesuit curator Amanda Young. The Smithsonian had received funding to preserve the spacesuit collection, but they needed help from ILC Dover to determine how best to protect the historic artifacts. Ayrey agreed to help, but instead of telling them everything he knew, he tapped the men and women who actually developed and created the suits.
“I would call up these people and invite them to come with me,” he said. “They loved doing it. So I would walk into these conference rooms with these experts, and they would be loving it.”
Ayrey started working at ILC Dover in 1977, eight years after the moon landing and five years after the final Apollo flight. The company had recently been awarded a contract to develop and make the spacesuits for the Space Shuttle program. Ayrey vividly remembers his early days, seeing nearly forgotten Apollo suits sitting in a corner collecting dust.
“I was 15 when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. It was such an interesting time for me to see that all unfold and just happen,” he said. “Then to be at the company that made the suits and seeing these Apollo suits sitting on a rack was pretty amazing.”
Ayrey became the company’s historian in the late ‘90s. After helping University of Delaware with its exhibit for the 30th anniversary of the moon landing, he asked the ILC Dover president at the time if he could set up a small museum in building. It had become clear to the brass that Ayrey appreciated the company’s history.
Over the last three years, he put his knowledge into a book. “Lunar Outfitters” is under review at Florida University Press, the same publisher that released fellow Lewes resident Jack Clemons’ book, “Safely to Earth: The Men and Women Who Brought the Astronauts Home,” in 2018. Ayrey’s book tells the history of the Apollo spacesuit and the engineers and seamstresses who worked together to develop and create it. The book is expected to be released later this year or early 2020.
“My interest is making sure that the people who worked on Apollo get the recognition that they deserve,” he said. “To me, they’re like my idols.”
Producers John Hoberg and Kat Likkel have already bought the rights to the book, and they hope to use it as the basis for a movie or Broadway production. Ayrey said ILC Dover’s underdog story piqued their interest.
The company was a small fish in a big pond. They beat out much larger companies such as BF Goodrich and David Clark Company for the Apollo spacesuit contract. Prior to jumping into the aerospace industry, the company had been a division of Playtex, creating women’s bras and girdles.
Ayrey’s interaction with Hoberg and Likkel isn’t his first brush with Hollywood. During the production of the Neil Armstrong biopic “First Man,” starring Ryan Gosling, a sound engineer working on the film worked with Ayrey to capture the exact sounds the suits make. The producer told Ayrey that if Buzz Aldrin was sitting in the theater, he wanted everything, like the helmet locking into place, to sound exactly as it did in 1969.
Ayrey moved to Dover from Pittsburgh in 1968. Ironically, his father was transferred to Delaware by the Stanley Warner company, which owned ILC. Little did Ayrey know, less than a decade later he would begin a 41-year career at the company. He says he’s a mechanical person and always enjoyed working in the test labs at ILC.
His first job at ILC was writing instructions on how to build the airships the company was making at the time.
“We had one expert overseeing the fabrication of them, but there were no written instructions on how to make them,” he said.
Just a few months later, he was offered a job working in the test lab. After about 10 years, he became the lab manager responsible for testing materials, product assemblies and the spacesuits.
His work included testing many items outside the space industry, but the spacesuits were always the highlight. As part of his job, he had to actually get into the suits. He said he had about 160 hours of pressure time in the suits.
Hanging on the wall of Ayrey’s home is a photograph of him in Apollo astronaut Gene Cernan’s suit during testing.
ILC still makes spacesuits for International Space Station astronauts. The company specializes in extravehicular activity suits or EVAs, suits astronauts wear outside the ISS during space walks.
“They have to hold up to the rigors of space,” Ayrey said. “It has to hold the pressure, give you oxygen, cooling, protect from micrometeorites, radiation and all that. There’s a bunch that goes into all that.”
Ayrey officially retired from ILC earlier this year, but retirement is a relative term. He still spends several days a week at work at the company’s Frederica facility. The morning of his interview with the Cape Gazette, he was testing a glove for the ISS suit.
His Lewes home is a homage to the spacesuit and space program. There’s a drawing of the Apollo 11 crew hanging in his garage, and the stairwell to his second floor is filled with photographs, paintings and sketches. Outside, his SUV has the license plate SPASUIT.
He said he feels fortunate to have done something he enjoys his whole career. It’s even allowed him to meet some of his idols, including Neil Armstrong.
As the 50th anniversary approaches, Ayrey said, the hoopla has reached ILC Dover. He’s been interviewed by the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, and he helped coordinate a segment for CBS Sunday Morning that aired July 14.
“I want people to know we built the spacesuits just 30 minutes away from this area,” he said. “They were made right here in Delaware.”